Arnold Kling  

Elitism or Populism: Pick Your Poison

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The Mirage of Libertarian Popu... Elitism: The Lesser Poison...

Bryan argues for elitism.


In a modern democracy, not only can a libertarian be elitist; a libertarian has to be elitist. To be a libertarian in a modern democracy is to say that nearly 300 million Americans are wrong, and a handful of nay-sayers are right.

Fair enough. But the converse would be, "to be elitist is to be libertarian," and that is not true. Many important elites, in academia and journalism for example, are supremely confident in the ability of government to "fix health care," "manage the distribution of income," and so forth.

Libertarians are a tiny portion of X, whether X is the general population or the elite. Given that, the question is whether populism or elitism are more dangerous. One can argue, as Bryan does, that populism is more dangerous because the people are really, really ignorant. However, my counter-argument would be that non-libertarian elites may be more dangerous, because their additional incremental knowledge is exceeded by their incremental arrogance. The gap between what one knows and what one thinks one knows may be higher in the ranks of the elite. The result is supposedly-clever government interventions, introduced with excessive confidence, leading to disastrous results.

Just off the top of my head, a good example would be wage-price controls, which the elite were enamored of in the 1960's and finally got to experiment with in the 1970's. Bryan may be a bit young to have as vivid a memory as I do of how that played out.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy



COMMENTS (6 to date)
Tom West writes:

To be a libertarian in a modern democracy is to say that nearly 300 million Americans are wrong, and a handful of nay-sayers are right.

Actually he's also wrong about that. I've yet to meet a single American who believes that all of his views are being expressed by the government. Everybody believes that they are right among 300 million Americans being wrong.

It's simply that most of them aren't arrogant enough to believe that their views are more important than democracy. (Or maybe Bryan simply doesn't understand that Libertarians would last about 10 seconds against competing elites who really understand power.)

Tim Lundeen writes:

The big plus for populism is that if current policies aren't working, they will be changed. Perhaps too soon, and perhaps to something worse, but they will change.

A controlling elite, on the other hand, is incented to continue to control, and has no incentives to change just because things aren't working.

So elites may work in the short run, but in the long run you need a system that can "throw the bums out" when they are wrong, or incompetent, or venal.

Zhu Benben writes:

liber is not to overrule. liber is to disagree. there is a fine line.

Josh writes:

Arnold, I agree with you. I would much rather be ruled by the median American than the median elite, given that the median elite is most definitely NOT a libertarian.

But the converse would be, "to be elitist is to be libertarian," and that is not true.

Caplan is not arguing that all elitists are libertarian, but that more elitists are libertarian. He then demonstrates this by proposing that libertarianism is by nature an elitist position, and thus that the vast majority of libertarians are elitists.

If we accept that premise, the only legitimate way to argue against it is to somehow demonstrate that elitists outnumber non-elitists by a greater margin than elitist libertarians outnumber non-elitist libertarians.

Since this is probably not the case, we have to focus on the premise, and propose that libertarianism is not by nature elitist.

I happen to agree with that proposal, and I think Caplan's flaw lies in this statement:

So how can you be one of the nay-sayers, unless you think you and your fellow nay-sayers have exceptionally good judgment?

Because while our judgment is not necessarily superior, there exists an information asymmetry. I think one fundamental aspect of the libertarian perspective is the idea that if other people really understood the interaction of the forces involved, the libertarian perspective is not just likely, but inevitable. You don't have to be among the elite to understand these forces, but the luxury of studying them helps, and if you're too busy trying to earn a living... it's probably not happening.

So the libertarian perspective is not an elitist perspective by nature, it is simply more accessible to the elite - just like everything else. But the libertarian perspective is not unique in this; every major political perspective shares the same quality, because having a partisan political perspective AT ALL is more common among the elite, for the exact same reasons.

So Caplan's argument is, IMO, meaningless. True... but meaningless.

Steve writes:

"Bryan may be a bit young to have as vivid a memory as I do of how that played out."

Sounds like you're pulling rank of Bryan. Very elitist of you. :-)

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